A Serious Man: A Parable About Religion (and other things)

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. — Rashi

A Serious Man is a seriously great work of art, a film about deep questions, the paucity of compelling answers to life’s mysteries, and what we should do in response. It is a religious parable, a riddle, an enigma… and a damn fine black comedy, as you might expect, given that it sprang from the brilliant and twisted minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. It has much of the look and feel of their earlier and vastly underappreciated Barton Fink, another story about a Jewish intellectual whose world is turned upside down and who must grope for answers.

Set (largely) in the late-sixties Twin Cities suburbs where the Coens grew up, A Serious Man chronicles the events over the course of several weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gropnik. He’s hit a rough patch where everything that could possibly go wrong does, creating an existential crisis that forces him to look for explanations. He has taken it for granted, it would seem, for his entire life, that such answers will be there when he needs them. This is absolutely not the case.

The film is not only about one man’s struggles with life’s slings and arrows, though: it is calculated to put the audience itself into a a kind of unsettling anxiety, similar to Larry’s. The Coens set out to discombobulate from the get-go, when, instead of locating us in Minnesota as we expect, we are rather shown a fairy-tale like short story set in some undisclosed eastern European location, during some unknown era. What is going on here? It is a startling, disorienting, and gripping little prelude to the main picture, and it presages some of the themes to come.

Fables often work in groups of three (there will be three rabbis later in the film, which are each announced with their own title cards), so it isn’t suprsing to find three Yiddish-speaking characters in the puzzling preamble. When a man invites an old friend into to his home, his wife is convinced that it is not a person that will come, but a malevolent spirit from some ancient folklore. The visitor arrives, and the mystery of his true identity only gets deeper. It ends on an entirely unresolved note, with no indication as to whether or not the couple has done God’s will, or committed an act of evil in their treatment of the visitor, whose fate is equally nebulous.

We are given no time to grope to find the moral to this episode (and it seems like we should know it, somehow) for we now jump to the story proper, quickly generating compassion for the hero Larry who is suffering in every possible way. His wife wants a divorce so as to run off with an old family friend, his son is a dope-smoking underachiever, his banal daughter is obsessed with washing her hair and getting a nose-job, his students are bored (and one attempts to bribe him for a passing grade), his neighbors inexplicable and menacing, his lawyer far too expensive, his brother a free-loader, and that is just the beginning. Events snowball from here, and Larry seeks, if not solutions, at least explanations for why he is suddenly besieged with these difficulties. Why would God do this to him? After all, he hasn’t “done anything.”  It isn’t clear exactly what his life was like before the events in the film unfold, but one has the impression that he was coasting along until that point, not really aware that something about the world was seriously out of joint. In any case, as he becomes forced to face the absurdity of life, the only clear answer is that there is no answer.

Where can he turn? First, he finds no absolution in his rational point of view, or the theoretical physics that he practices for a living. He knows, after all, its limitations, for at the rock bottom of reality is the quantum mechanical Uncertainty Principle he’s trying to teach his students about.

Larry Gopnik: The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

“It shouldn’t bother you”?  Easy to say, but of course, it bothers the hell out of Larry that he doesn’t know what is going on. He lectures on the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought exercise that demonstrates the untenability of understanding quantum mechanics with everyday common sense, and which he admits not to truly understand. He also makes a mistake on the blackboard as he is lecturing, and the attentive viewer should see it – he write down a quantity that is clearly equal to zero but equates it to a nonzero experssion. Like generating something from nothing, it mirrors the fundamental absurdity of the Universe itself arising from quantum fluctuations in the void (from a “cosmos factory”? Or is that just a Creedence album he might be forced to buy from the harassing collection agent at the Columbia Music Club?) Meanwhile his brother is constructing something called a “Mentaculus”, a “probability map of the Universe”; a bizarre numerological book that apparently allows one to predict random events, like a sort of anti-quantum mechanics built of language and symbols just as dense. It is all a dead end.

Larry now looks for a second path, through the lens of his religion, which ostensibly is there to help him through such times.

Friend at the Picnic: Sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be. And it can take a while before you feel what was always there, for better or worse.
Larry Gopnik: I never felt it! It was a bolt from the blue! What does that mean! Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.
Friend at the Picnic: Then-it’s an opportunity to learn how things really are. I’m sorry-I don’t mean to sound glib. It’s not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you.
Larry Gopnik: I’ll say.
Friend at the Picnic: But it’s not something you have to figure out all by yourself. We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.

Being steeped in this old, all-encompassing religious tradition that is shared by every other person in the film that he knows, Larry’s frustration is all the more pronounced because none of it helps. It only seems to make it worse. There is a wonderful digression (“The Goy’s Teeth”) at the center of the film that involves a rabbi telling Larry the story of a Jewish dentist that finds a Hebrew inscription (reading, not suprisingly, “help me save me”) on one of his patients’ teeth. What could it mean? Was God trying to send the dentist a message? Is there a deep meaning to this parable? We wait expectantly through this portion of the film, just like Larry, wondering what the finale will be. When we find out that there isn’t any answer at all, no moral, nothing, we share his frustration – “why bother telling the story at all?!” both we and Larry exclaim. Religious explanations are ultimately incapable of answering the questions that they are purported to answer. The Goy’s Teeth parable is as useless as the Yiddish one that begins the movie.

Like an Old Testament character, Larry soon becomes haunted by dreams rich with symbolism. The symbolism spills into real life as well, throughout the film, if you look for it.

Larry Gopnik: There’s some mistake. I’m not a member of the Columbian Record Club.
Dick Dutton: Sir, you are Lawrence Gopnik of 1425 Flag Avenue South?
Larry Gopnik: No, I live at the Jolly Roger.

Jolly Roger is the hotel he’s been forced to live at, an “eminently habitable” hotel with a pool (that has no water in it). A Jolly Roger is also the black flag with a skull and crossbones, a symbol of the death lurking out there; the car-accident death of his wife’s lover Sy Ableman (Sy? Or is it Psi, the greek letter used to represent the wavefunction in quantum mechanics? Able Man? Or a biblical Abel killed by his rival?); the death of Schrodinger’s Cat; or the death first detected from routine X-rays during a checkup. Larry argues with Dick Dutton about the Santana album that he has been charged for, and insists that he did not order it. He does not want it. He does not listen to it. The album is Abraxis. Abraxis is also the name of a gnostic god that embodies all good and evil.

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies, then what?” is the question that an old rabbi asks near the close of the film. This is an interesting twist on the Jefferson Airplane song that we’ll hear throughout. Grace Slick sings “joy” not “hope”; and the death of hope is even more devastating than the death of joy. Well, then what?

Larry Gopnik: Always! Actions always have consequences! In this office, actions have consequences!
Clive Park: Yes sir.
Larry Gopnik: Not just physics. Morally.
Clive Park: Yes.
Larry Gopnik: And we both know about your actions.
Clive Park: No sir. I know about my actions.
Larry Gopnik: I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.
Clive Park: Meer sir my sir.
Larry Gopnik: Meer sir my sir?
Clive Park: [Careful enunciation] Mere… surmise. Sir. Very uncertain.

If the First Way is the comfortless path to Uncertainty at the heart of reality, and the Second Way is an inconsistent religious theodicy that makes no sense, what is the Third Way? Not surprisingly, it is expressed in just three words, spoken by the Asian (Buddhist?) father of Larry’s student Clive: “Accept The Mystery.” The only answers are that there are no answers. In the Book of Job, God speaks from the whirlwind to say that the reason for Job’s suffering will not be disclosed. Which is the basis for the final scene, as brilliant, disturbing, and perfect a scene that ever closed any movie; a statement that answers Everything, and Nothing.

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5 Responses to “A Serious Man: A Parable About Religion (and other things)”

  1. You beat me to the punch. I was going to say that this whole movie sounds like a modern rendition of the story of Job.

  2. John Culpepper Says:

    In the context of the movie “A Serious Man” means “a virtuous man” — these words are used in eulogizing Sy Edelman at his funeral. But we know that Sy Edelman was a very bad man, a hypocrite and and homebreaker. This truth is a lie. Gopnik is a serious man, he is trying to be a good man. I believe the Coens intend him to represent one of the “just” as in “the last of the just” — one of the anonymous and humble men, not noticed by other Jews, who takes on in his person the sufferings (ill luck) of the Jewish tribe and hence is responsible for its salvation. The Coens refer to their assistant in the credits as “the last of the Just”. Most reviewers are puzzled by Gopnik’s passivity, but if he is one of the just, then his essential nature and function as a representative (or average) man is to be humble and un-heroic. In the end, he seems to be tempted to do wrong and the continuity of the tribe, represented by Gopnik’s wavering and uncertain son, is threatened by God, in the form of a whirlwind.

    When we have undetermined evidence (uncertainty) about the future, as all of us do, we must just go on and do the best we can to be good (serious) people. That is the message I took from the movie.

  3. Daniel R. Says:

    Best review of “A Serious Man” I have read so far!

    “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joys within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love”

    Meaning: When you realize that what you have been taught about the meaning of life (religion) is a lie, causing the foundation to your happiness, hopefulness, and optimism to be swept away, the only “real” path to happiness in this life is to love and be loved.

  4. Terry Barge Says:

    The thought it left with me was that to see our mortal, human life as the totality of our life was a profound mistake else all of the ‘ups and downs’ of Larry’s life and our lives as well makes no sense at all. Life has sense but only if you see mortal being replaced by immortal at some point whether through accident or a natural end.

    What is learnt, what is endured, what is generated in terms of relationship with the Creator and not how religion has defined Him is what really matters.

    Larry’s dilemma was to not allow the issues to help him to move away from the unpredictability of human life and to the much firmer and solid ground of spiritual predictability which is firmly in the hands of the Creator of life and not in very unhelpful traditional religious thinking

  5. I wouldn’t say that Judaism in this film is just a stand in for magical theology of all kinds. Nachtner’s story of the Goys teeth is precisely about “accepting the mystery”. Even in the telling, Nachtner tries repeatedly to end the story earlier than Larry wants. Most people relate to Larry’s chaos and resent Nachtners serenity as “bullshit”. However, the religious men never ever delve into magical theology, or pretend to know the will of God. The Rabbi’s show there is a balance and a chaos to asking questions, and a context. The Rabbi’s(who are different from the Jewish priests of antiquity who did magical stuff) understand this, and because of their position in the community, they can contemplate mysteries irrelevant to a dentist or a physics teacher(“He’s thinking”). They’re not fixing their own teeth either, though. It’s a community of flawed humans, in the context of an inexplicable and absurd existence.

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